NFL

JuJu Smith-Schuster hints at dramatic shift in his role in Steelers offense

JuJu Smith-Schuster surprised NFL executives by returning to the Steelers in free agency and a big change in his role in the offense could help him cash in next offseason.

Slot receivers are important in the modern NFL, but most deep threats typically emerge from the outside. That’s a big reason why JuJu Smith-Schuster is angling for a move from the slot to the perimeter ahead of the 2021 season.

Smith-Schuster recently told the Adam Schefter podcast fans should expect to see him “playing outside more” this season. That might seem like a subtle shift for neutral fans, but Steelers diehards understand just how much that move can change the complexion of their offense.

“You are going to get the whole package,” Smith-Schuster said. “I think the biggest thing that a lot of people are talking about is me playing outside. You’ll definitely see me playing outside more.”

The 24-year-old wideout lined up almost exclusively as an inside receiver in 2020. He led the NFL in routes run from the slot with 629. The downside to that is that Smith-Schuster struggled mightily to stretch the field vertically. His average depth per target on the season was only 5.8 yards and he only managed to notch six deep routes on the campaign.

Part of the rationale behind lining Smith-Schuster in the slot last season was to help Ben Roethlisberger get rid of the ball quickly. His declining arm strength continues to be a big issue for Pittsburgh. Deploying a weapon like Smith-Schuster in the slot allowed the Steelers’ offense to cover up a lot of Big Ben’s arm issues.

It appears that new offensive coordinator Matt Canada is inclined to open up the offense more in 2021. Lining Smith-Schuster up opposite Chase Claypool on conventional passing downs is going to do a lot to stretch opposing secondaries. The end result might be a decrease in receptions for Smith-Schuster. The flipside to that equation is that his total yards and touchdowns should be in line to increase if Roethlisberger can get the ball to him down the field.

Moving outside can help Smith-Schuster get paid

Smith-Schuster’s desire to move back outside could also be influenced by his impending free agency. He didn’t get the sort of interest he wanted on the open market this offseason. It’s possible his market was depressed by concerns over whether or not he can still flourish on the outside.

Perimeter wide receivers who can stretch the field and produce plays are simply more valuable than their peers in the slot. If Smith-Schuster wants to cash in with Pittsburgh or another team next offseason, he needs to prove he can still be a No. 1 receiver on the outside. It’s possible this position switch was a condition of his agreement to return to the Steelers for one more season.

The big question here is whether or not Roethlisberger still has enough arm strength to make this move work. It’s easy to envision a scenario where Smith-Schuster gets frustrated with his lack of targets if Pittsburgh really doesn’t increase its willingness to push the ball down the field. Smith-Schuster doesn’t want to be a highly paid decoy on the outside. Moving him out of the slot only makes sense if the Steelers are committed to being more aggressive in 2021.

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